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We were somewhere over the wetlands of southern Louisiana when the helicopter door popped open.
If adventure is your thing, there is no better job in the world than being a reporter. Many of my colleagues have done heroic work as war correspondents, going into hot zones to help cover Ebola or the coronavirus, and witnessing heartbreaking conditions among the world’s poorest people. We are all indebted to them.
On the flip side, I’ve done what I love as a journalist and mostly focused on the role science and technology play in our lives: Ride the Rides. In 21 years with the New York Times, I have traveled in airboats, river dredgers and a prototype moon buggy, flown twice in weightlessness and even (briefly) with a jetpack.
I’ve watched high school students blow up a watermelon, descend Albuquerque’s sewers, and stand safe in a metal suit with a zillion volts of electricity running through it. I also wrote stories for almost every section of the Times.
Which brings me back to that other helicopter flight when the door flew open.
I sat across from Kenneth R. Feinberg, the attorney and pioneering mediator who created Victim Compensation Fund after tragedies like the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the BP oil spill on that hot day in 2010. He crossed southern Louisiana in a car, a private plane paid for by BP, and a government helicopter to make presentations in four communities that day and to urge those affected by the environmental disaster to register for settlements.
I had arranged to travel with him for the day and it was exhausting just to keep up. When the helicopter took us to the water-rich southernmost cities in the state and the summer heat of the afternoon rose in the cabin, we all got sleepy. Mr. Feinberg leaned against the door.
Suddenly the cabin was filled with wind and the violent noise of the rotors above. Mr. Feinberg was strapped to a harness, but his body was still lurching to the left into the void. Despite the restrictions, the moment was confusing and terrifying, and Amy Weiss, Mr. Feinberg’s longtime spokeswoman, rushed to pull him fully into position while we both struggled to close the door and pull the latch.
Mr. Feinberg looked over at me with wide eyes and said with perfect performance: “That would have been a story.”
Look under “Serenity” in the dictionary. The picture of Mr. Feinberg should be there. I saw a person who was able to recover at a remarkable rate even in an extreme moment and was still straying from a good line, and I felt like I knew him much better than I did at the beginning of this long day.
And then we landed and he got out and made another speech. And then another.
This is a ride that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
At the end of the week, I’ll be leaving the Times for another dream job: teaching journalism at my alma mater, the University of Texas, and becoming assistant director of UT’s new Global Sustainability Leadership Institute. It’s a different kind of adventure. As a teacher, I hope to help my students approach science subjects without fear and communicate clearly; asking good questions and asking for honest answers. To help their future readers not only understand, but also see and feel.
And to drive the rides.